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September 2014
Issue: June 1, 2011

Recording 'Mr. Popper's' penguins

HOLLYWOOD — Some might say that sound designer Mark Mangini’s job is for the birds. At Soundelux, Mangini led the sound team for Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the new live action comedy film from 20th Century Fox, starring Jim Carrey as a businessman whose chilly relationship with his family heats up after he inherits six adorable penguins.

The penguins play a prominent part in the film and interact with Carrey’s character, among others. Each also has a distinct personality that is communicated, largely through the sound it makes. 

“We have Captain, the leader; Loudy, who has an ear-piercing scream; Nimrod, who’s intellectually challenged; Lovey, a cuddler; Bitey, who’s a bit aggressive; and Stinky, who has a problem with his digestion,” notes Mangini. “We had to create a voice for each of those archetypes and do it using naturalistic penguin sounds.”

The job was a challenge, and very few penguin sounds were recorded during the production. “On the set, penguins, like most animals, make very little sound,” Mangini explains. “In general, they only vocalize when they are alone or threatened, which, of course, they never were.”

To gather appropriate penguin sounds, Mangini searched stock sound libraries, but found that little was available. Most of the penguin sounds that he did find were recorded in the natural world and were marred by wind and other environmental sounds, making them unusable. He also considered using human voice talent to mimic penguins, but quickly concluded that would not result in the natural sound required for the film.

Ultimately, Mangini decided to capture original penguin recordings, so he arranged to have access to the birds that were used in the film. 

“We couldn’t use a regular recording facility because penguins need to be in an environment that is 40 degrees or colder at all times,” he notes. “So we built a recording room equipped with a special air conditioning system. It became our ‘penguin ADR room.’” 

Sound recordist Ben Cheah spent the next several days working with animal trainers, who tempted the birds into vocalizing by offering them fish. It was slow going. The more than 16 hours of recordings captured by the crew resulted in just five minutes of penguin chirps, honks and cheeps. That, however, proved to be just enough. 

Through judicious editing and digital enhancement, Mangini and his crew used these recordings as the basis for creating human-like personalities for each of the birds. 

“For Nimrod, we developed a kooky, zany sound by editing little pieces together and changing their pitch. It makes him sound loony,” says Mangini. “Another ‘miracle’ sound is Lovey’s ‘coo.’ We found a beautiful coo that sounds like the cutest nuzzle you’ve ever heard.”

The team also employed their recordings to illustrate a huge variety of behaviors, both bird-like and anthropomorphic. Among other things, they developed specialized sounds to suggest penguin laughs, screams and flatulence. They also created a signature sound indicating a penguin’s urgent need to relieve itself. 

“I imagine there will be penguin trainers in the audience who will recognize they are hearing the genuine sounds of gentoo penguins,” Mangini says, “but they’ll leave the theater scratching their heads and wondering how we got the birds to do it.”